AMNH expansion plan goes to court

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Anonymous donor pledges $100k match to opponents' cause


  • Access is now restricted to several pathways in Theodore Roosevelt Park due to work related to the museum's Gilder Center expansion project. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • The American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center expansion would occupy a quarter-acre of what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park. Rendering: American Museum of Natural History

Opponents of the American Museum of Natural History's $383 million expansion plan received an 11th-hour boost ahead of a crucial hearing in their quest to block the project in court.

A deep-pocketed mystery donor has pledged to match up to $100,000 in contributions to the cause, Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, the local group behind the lawsuit, announced earlier this month.

Laura Messersmith, Community United's co-president, hopes that the matching pledge will galvanize fundraising efforts to support the group's lawsuit, for which it has enlisted the services of the prominent land use and preservation attorney Michael Hiller. “This has been a grassroots effort from the get-go, with donors large and small contributing all along the way,” she said. “This donation comes at a great moment with the court case just around the corner, and we think it's really inspirational.”

Messersmith spoke to the donor's motivations while honoring the individual's wish to remain anonymous. “This is a cause this person believes in and feels is important to the Upper West Side,” she said. “They chose to do this as a match rather than as a straight donation because they think it is important that the cause has widespread support in the community.”

Community United filed its lawsuit in March, after the museum received city approval to build the 200,000-square-foot Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, part of which would stand in what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park. Plans for the expansion include new classrooms and exhibition spaces. It would also create a new entrance to the museum facing Columbus Avenue, which critics say would exacerbate pedestrian and vehicle traffic in the area.

The lawsuit, which names both the city and the museum as respondents, argues that the project should have been subject to the city's extensive Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The suit also alleges that the work will imperil public health and that steps taken to mitigate the release of hazardous materials during construction are inadequate. (These claims were refuted in the city's environmental review of the project.)

According to the lawsuit, the Gilder Center, if completed, would “not only result in the loss of public parkland comprising cherished greenspaces in Theodore Roosevelt Park, but worse, [...] would cause catastrophic environmental damage to the area, posing a series of life-threatening health hazards to residents of, and visitors to, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.”

The Supreme Court of the State of New York will hear oral arguments Oct. 2.

Preliminary work on the project is now underway. In recent weeks, workers erected fencing blocking access to paths in the park near the proposed site of the Gilder Center, on the western side of the museum near West 79th Street.

In an emailed statement, a museum spokesperson explained that “the work underway in the Park relates to the installation of the construction site fence for the Gilder Center project. It includes work on a temporary park access path near 80th Street as well as the installation of tree protection. Once the path is completed and the tree protection is installed, we will begin to install the site fence.”

Cary Goodman, a local resident and longtime opponent of the project, took issue with the timing. “Here's a museum that for three years has been telling us they want to be a good neighbor, and right before this court date they're setting up barricades and blocking the park off,” he said.

The spokesperson noted that the museum has established “a construction task force which includes representatives from neighborhood groups” to respond to public concerns. “The task force was apprised of the course we've been following during a July meeting,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, there is a community liaison for the project as well as a dedicated email ( and phone number (212-769-5246) for members of the community to ask questions or report concerns.”

Museum officials hope to complete the Gilder Center by 2021.

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